Outside the colonial town hall, with its peeling white paint and general decay , something very peculiar is happening. It is a characteristically roasting hot day and two black men dressed completely in white are carrying what appears to be a smoking human head on a red velvet plate. One of the men is wearing a tall, busby-style hat which a fellow bystander reliably informs me is made entirely of human hair. Before long, the head-shaped object is placed on the floor and a soft, but quick rhythmic drum beat begins. Further groups of white-clad men and women join in and, as the beat increases in volume, they move faster and more vigorously.
The men are from the santeria religion, a merge between West African spiritual groups and Roman Catholicism, and the event is the Fiesta del Feugo, an annual festival carried out in Santiago de Cuba to celebrate Caribbean and Latin American culture. This particular exhibition of Afro-Caribbean culture would soon be joined by Mexican mariachi bands, Brazilian salsa groups and, naturally, a dozen different dance, music and spiritual groups from across the extraordinarily diverse island of Cuba.
This display of celebration belies the well-known mantra within the country: ‘el cubano no vive, el cubano sobrevive’. The Cuban doesn’t live, the Cuban simply survives. In fact, all across Cuba – festival or no festival – the idea that they do not live seems far-removed from reality. From the rum-sipping youths on Havana’s malecon to the Cienfuegos bars releasing melodic trova ballads into the air, the country appears entrenched in a constant mood of festivity.
These celebrations are often a façade for the real tribulations faced by so many Cubans, albeit a façade far greater than in any other Latin American country I have visited. The reality is that Cuba is falling apart, not just economically but politically, and the culture is increasingly the only thing holding the cracks together.
The Revolution is in its 55th year, a fact of which Cubans are reminded every day through regular TV announcements and billboards smothered with propaganda. It was a revolution which saw hundreds of thousands flee to America, the establishment of Marxist-Leninist regime and the relinquishment of property, a policy which the state has only recently began to retreat on. The outcome of this has been a state synonymous with hand-outs, authoritarianism and dependence.
The revolution did come with some highly publicised success stories which continue today. Cuba is second only to Argentina in Latin American literacy rates and the state maintains 10% of spending on education. In 2006, a Newsnight special report concluded that the country’s renowned healthcare system – which produces similar health statistics to its great antagonist, the United States – is one of the few reasons the Castro regime continues to be on top.
But these successes are beginning to wane as a wider picture of Cuban development emerges. It is one of a state which is complacent and not bothered by the finer details, typified by the attitude of “you may not have text-books, but at least you’re at school”. More worrying for the regime are the views of the young in Cuba. Experiencing the wonders, and inequalities, created by Raul Castro’s ‘mini-capitalism’, they are increasingly disenchanted with the revolution.
Jesus, a young, underemployed taxi driver from Santiago de Cuba, is anxious at first but, after a couple of minutes, begins to reel out tales of gross incompetency from the regime. When I tell him that Cuba has a remarkable reputation in healthcare he reminds me that doctors are paid around 20 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) – about £15 – a month and that no matter how many doctors they have, no matter how professional their prognosis, it appears that they only ever have one medication to prescribe. He throws me a packet of brown pills before sticking up his middle finger and saying ‘fuck the politics’. He smiles:
“Five years ago, I would’ve gone to jail for saying that to a tourist.”
Cuba is still officially a socialist state, but the growing inequalities are only too clear to see. One of Havana’s exclusive nightclubs charges 10CUC entry (half a doctors salary) and is filled with the sunglass-wearing, young middle-class. These are the lucky few in Cuba; the children of the military, the musicians, the entrepreneurs manipulating Cuba’s new opportunities.
Cuba has, incredibly, become a country where a busker can earn far more than a teacher or a doctor.
For the rest of Cuba, dependence remains. It is, however, an increasingly unsustainable dependence which is hindering any productive development in the country. State subsidies continue, but food still costs too much. Aid for the most vulnerable is still handed out, but it is increasingly less. We heard one story of a man whose house was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy who was given 500g of screws to build a new one, but little else. Socialist rhetoric is still rife, but Cuba’s Gini coefficient rose from 0.21 in the late 1980’s to 0.42 a decade later.
Cuba’s young did not live through the indignities of the pre-Revolution. For many years Cuban’s have lived in the belief that although things might not be perfect, they are certainly better than they were. Now, the youth want change from what they have always known. The system is imperfect and the vibrant spirit which has always sustained Cuba is no longer enough. They want the shoes, the car and the lifestyle to go with it. With small increases in economic mobility emerging, Cubans no longer want to survive-they want to live.
Photo credit: Benjamin Butcher